Overview of Historical Laws that Supported Domestic Violence

Battering, like the sexism which supports and fosters it, is a practice of long standing in Western culture. Whenever women and children are seen as 'belonging' to a man, violence has been used as a tool of legitimate control. Throughout history, the rights and regulations pertaining to this control (often-termed castigation, discipline or chastisement) of a man's wife and children have been codified in various laws, both civil and religious.

In 1800 BC, the Code of Hammurabi decreed that a wife was subservient to her husband and that he could inflict punishment on any member of his household for any transgression.

The Roman Code of Paterfamilias reads, "If you should discover your wife in adultery, you may with impunity put her to death without a trial, but if you should commit adultery or indecency, she must not presume to lay a finger on you, nor does the law allow it." Some other offenses punishable by death were walking outside with her face uncovered or attending a public event without permission.

Medieval Canon law encouraged that wifely disobedience be punished publicly, using devices like iron muzzles with spikes which depressed the tongue.

In Renaissance France when it became clear that too many women and children were being beaten to death and their economic contributions lost, lawmakers acted to moderate the effects of domestic chastisement. One statute, considered in its time to be progressive, restricted the chastisement of wives and children to "blows, thumps, kicks or punches on the back...which did not leave any marks," but added, "the man who is not master of his wife is not worthy of being a man." Another law even later, designed to protect women and children stated that, "All the inhabitants have the right to beat their wives so long as death does not follow."

Some time in the 1700s, an English common law came into effect that decreed that a husband had the right to "chastise his wife with a whip or rattan no bigger than his thumb, in order to enforce...domestic discipline. For as he is to answer for her misbehavior, the law thought it reasonable to entrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children." This law came to be known as the "law of thumb".

In the U.S., the courts continued to uphold a man's right to punish his wife with violence until 1871. In a case known as Fulgam vs. the State of Alabama, the court ruled that, "The privilege, ancient though it may be, to beat her with a stick, to pull her hair, choke her, spit in her face or kick her about the floor or to inflict upon her other like indignities, is not now acknowledged by our law."

In 1910, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that a wife had no cause for action on an assault and battery charge against her husband because it "would open the doors of the courts to accusations of all sorts of one spouse against the other and bring into public notice complaints for assault, slander and libel."

As recently as 1977, the California Penal Code stated that wives charging husbands with criminal assault and battery must suffer more injuries than commonly needed for charges of battery.

Today, women have the ability to obtain protection orders through the court. However, in almost half of our states, the police are not empowered to enforce these orders, nor is there any penalty for the men who violate them.

In Vermont, violation of a protection order became a crime with the passage of a law to that effect in 1990. Police officers are authorized to enforce orders, and the law outlines penalties for violations.

Reading About Domestic Violence

Ann Jones, Next Time, She'll Be Dead: Battering and How to Stop It, 1994, Beacon Press,288 pages. Domestic Violence must be viewed not as a "marital problem," but as the crime that it is, says Jones, who gives specific suggestions of what the judicial system, medical and mental health establishments, schools, clergy, media and individuals can do to help women live free from violence.

Cherrie Morraga and Gloria Anzaldua, editors, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 1983, Kitchen Table Press. Classic collection of writings by Native American, Asian American, Latina and African American women on issues such as culture, class and homophobia. Includes extensive bibiography.

Ginny NiCarthy, Getting Free: You Can End Abuse and Take Back Your Life, 1997, Seal Press, 316 pages with list of resources. Helps the target of domestic abuse understand her situation and find ways to change it. Answers cmommon questions and gives detailed steps for making the decision to leave or stay.

Ginny NiCarthy and Sue Davidson, You Can Be Free,1997, 120 pages. Written in an accessible style for women in crisis, You Can Be Free covers a range or topics designed to help women leave an abusive relationship. This edition includes a new introduction and updated resources.

Susan Brewster, To Be An Anchor in the Storm, 1997, Ballatine Bools, 245 pages with list of resources. A guide for families and friends of abused women.

Evelyn C. White, Chain, Chain, Change: For Black Women Dealing with Physical and Emotional Abuse, 1985, Seal Press, 78 pages. Discusses stereotypes and cultural assumptions and offers suggestions for getting support and getting out of an abusive relationship.

Kerry Lobel, editor, Naming the Violence: Speaking Out About Lesbian Battering, 1986, Seal Press. An anthology of personal stories, articles and essays by lesbians about an experience that many women want to believe doesn't happen.

Allan Creighton with Paul Kivel, Helping Teens Stop Violence, 1992, Hunter House, 166 pages. Members of Battered Women's Alternatives and the Oakland Men's Project came up with this guide for counselors, teachers and parents to empower young people to resist abuse and to recognize the age-, race-, and gender-related power imbalances that cause violence.

Maxine Trottier, A Safe Place, 1997, 24 pages. Written for use with 3-10 year olds. This 24 page hardcover book tells the story of Emily and her experience at a shelter. This sensitive story offers comfort to abused women and children.

Barrie Levy, Dating Violence, Young Women in Danger, 1998, 315 pages. An indispensible book for all readers converned with fostering healthy, non-violent relationships between young people.

Paul Kivel, Men's Work: How to Stop the Violence that Tears Our Life Apart, 1992 Ballantine Books, 293 pages. The founder of the Oakland Men's Project examines how batterers learn violence and how they can break old patterns. Includes information on power and racism. With exercises and bibliography.

Paul Kivel, Boys Will Be Men, Ballantine Books, 1999. Talks about he chanllenges of raising responsible boys in today's world.

Ann Goetting, Getting Out, Columbia University Press, 1999. Life stories of women who left abusive men. 282 pages.

Elaine Weiss, Surviving Domestic Violence, Agreka Bools, 2000. This book tells the story of twelve women who broke free from their abusive partners.

Brian Ogawa, Walking on Eggshells, Volcano Press, 1996. This book discusses practical counseling for women in or leaving a violent relationship. Walking On Eggshells describes the feelings experienced by many women who are being physically and psychologically abused by their partners.

Jan Berliner Statman, The Battered Woman's Survival Guide, Tylor Publshing Company, 1990. A resource manual for vitims, reltives, friends and professionals, it includes legal options, profile of the battering personality, women's stories and ways to help a friend.

Ruth A. Brandwein, editor, Battered Women, Children, and Welfare Reform. Sage Publications, 1999. This book explores various threads that tie family violence to welfare.

Jill Davies, Safety Planning With Battered Women, Sage Publications, 1998. It offers new perspectives on safety planning in order for advocates to develop a more women-centered approach.

Theresa Funiciello, Tyranny of Kindness, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993. A discussion of the welfare system of a former recipient and current reform activist.


Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Jane Hamilton, Book of Ruth.
Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina.
Toni Morrison, Beloved, The Bluest Eye.
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea.
Alice Walker, The Color Purple.
Barabar Wilson, Sister of the Road.
Anna Quindlan, Black and Blue.